American Whiskey Interview

Island Life with Grant McCracken

We send one of whiskey’s great and good off to our island, but what will they take?

Grant McCracken spent the first part of his career in business consulting. Constantly distracted by his home-brewing hobby, he returned to school and graduated from the American Brewers Guild in 2008. In the years that followed, McCracken returned to school again (this time for distilling), eventually joining law-changing upstart Chattanooga Whiskey in 2014 as its founding distiller. 

Whiskey #1
Woodford Reserve 
Master’s Collection, Maple Wood Finish

Back in 2011, I was only a few years into my brewing career, and still just getting familiar with whiskey styles and production methods. Father’s Day was just around the corner, so I wanted to get my dad (a Scotch lover) a nice bottle of whiskey. Rather than risk buying him a bottle of a Scotch he’d already tried, I thought getting him a finished bourbon might be fun. I found this bottle, thinking that the toasted maple wood finish concept was really cool and something I hadn’t really seen before. It was fantastic… I finally found something that my dad and I could agree was awesome!  

Whiskey #2
16 Years Old

Sometime in 2013, we’d been experimenting with peated malt at the brewery… Looking for some kind of recipe inspiration, I purchased a copy of Michael Jackson’s Complete Guide to Single Malt Scotch. There I found Lagavulin 16 [Years Old], described as having “a peaty dryness like gunpowder tea” and a finish like “a bear hug”. A few weeks later, in a seemingly unrelated scenario, I found myself in our brewery breakroom, eating a reuben (on pumpernickel rye) way too fast. I suddenly realized it had blocked my windpipe…which prompted a co-worker to give me the Heimlich maneuver. Not knowing how else to thank him, I offered him a bottle of Lagavulin 16 as a small token of gratitude for the “bear hug” that probably saved my life. Thanks forever, Stu!

Whiskey #3
Chattanooga Whiskey 
99 Rye

This was one of the very first recipes developed at our Experimental Distillery, and one that holds a special place in my heart. It might sound crazy, but this whiskey is actually related to the last story, in that the mash bill was designed to mimic the flavors of the pumpernickel rye bread that almost took me down. More than that, though, it was meant to challenge the notion of what a rye whiskey could be. It has three types of malted rye – pale, caramel, and chocolate – which together offer a densely structured rye character, while still achieving a shockingly high level of drinkability.

Whiskey #4
New Riff 

New Riff’s Rye is a bit more traditional than ours, but it’s 95 per cent unmalted rye, five per cent malted rye mash bill and has a wonderful, hearty spice character with tons of personality. Also, I wouldn’t be in the whiskey business if it weren’t for New Riff’s head distiller Brian Sprance. I previously worked with Brian in the brewing industry. Back in 2015, right before we opened our Experimental Distillery, he and his team were nice enough to let me shadow them. I learned a lot of great whiskey-making fundamentals, but my biggest takeaway was the importance of being yourself, and embracing your own sense of style – as this great rye whiskey does for them.

Whiskey #5
12 Years Old, Cask Strength

On a recent trip home to see my parents, my dad gifted me a bottle of this whiskey and I absolutely loved it: subtle spice, dark fruit, rich malt and cask character, it has it all. Unfortunately, I had to leave early the next morning, and had to take a rain check on sharing a dram with him. Then, less than two weeks later, our team found ourselves at the World Whiskies Awards ceremony, being honored with an Icons of Whisky award, and having a conversation with the master blenders of this very creation. Awe aside, the thing that I took away from that night, and this whiskey, is that it’s not just about the flavors of a whiskey, or the story behind the recipe, or distillery legacy… it’s about sharing these things with people you love. 

A Luxury Item

As much as I should probably pick something useful, like a sturdy pocket knife… I really doubt I’ll be that productive with five lovely bottles of whiskey by my side. Therefore, I’m gonna say Cormac McCarthy’s new books, The Passenger and Stella Maris. My wife got them for me months ago, and due to a busy schedule, I’ve barely gotten through the intro of the first book. Being stranded on this theoretical island might be the perfect opportunity… I might survive long enough to read them once with each bottle!  

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